Modeling a Healthy Marriage to your Kids
By LESLIE LUDY
A few months ago, my eight-year-old daughter, Harper, drew a picture as a special gift for Eric and me. It was a sweet, childlike, and quite hilarious illustration of Eric giving me a kiss. When I asked her what motivated her to draw that particular picture, she answered rather wistfully, “Because I never see you and Daddy kiss each other anymore.” The comment surprised me. After all, our marriage was perfectly healthy and there was certainly no coldness between us. But after thinking about it, I realized that we’d been walking through an extremely busy season after the arrival of our two newest children from Haiti. With the intensity of our family and ministry lives, Eric and I hadn’t really slowed down to show much affection to each other around our kiddos. It wasn’t something I had even noticed — but our daughter had. Harper told me, “I like it when you and Daddy give kisses and hugs to each other. It makes me feel sad when you don’t.”
It was astounding to me that something so simple — like a busy season in which the kids didn’t see Eric and I showing much affection to each other — could have such a significant impact upon Harper’s sense of security. In reality, our marriage was (and is) as strong as ever, but when Harper didn’t see tangible evidence that our love for each other was still thriving, she started to feel unsettled and insecure. After giving it some thought, I began to understand why. We live in a culture in which marriages are crumbling left and right. Many times, our children see more examples of marriages falling apart than they do of marriages that go the distance. And even if they are being raised in a loving, Christian home where their parents genuinely love and respect each other, the instability of marriage in our culture can still affect them and make them prone to insecurity. Will my mom and dad be next? How can I know for sure they will always love each other and stay together?
If this insecurity isn’t pro-actively addressed at an early age, it can affect their entire view of their own romantic future. Studies have shown that the majority of young adults desire to be married to one person for a lifetime, but that most of them do not actually believe this is possible in today’s world. Twenty-somethings are less likely to get married than ever before, primarily because they don’t want to go through the same pain and heartache they saw their parents go through.
One of the best ways to help our children grow up with a healthy view of marriage is to purposefully model what a healthy marriage looks like. Behind the scenes your marriage might be doing just fine, but if you never take time to showcase a healthy marriage to your children, they will not gain a vision for what a thriving marriage really looks like.
During the hustle and bustle of raising young children, this can be easier said than done. But being purposeful in a few simple, practical areas can go a long way in modeling a strong marriage to our children.
Here are some ways to start
Work Through Disagreements Privately
Nothing breeds insecurity faster in a child than hearing his mom and dad argue. When a young child hears sharp words spoken between his parents, he can quickly jump to the conclusion that their marriage is in jeopardy, even if the argument isn’t a serious one. So when disagreements arise, steal away privately to work through them. If that is not possible in the moment, save the discussion for a later time when the kids are not around. This can be hard to do, because when feelings become strong we are often tempted to want to express them right away. But developing the discipline of waiting until you are alone with your spouse has a two-fold benefit. First, it prevents children from becoming insecure and hearing conversations that aren’t really any of their business, and secondly, it helps you calm down and get perspective, so that you are far less likely to speak out of emotion things you will regret.
William and Catherine Booth, Founders of the Salvation Army, had a very intense life of ministry while raising their eight children. Yet each of their children grew up to love and respect their parents and dedicate their lives to Christ. In the very beginning of their marriage, William and Catherine made a commitment never to argue in front of their children. That decision became one of the most important keys to the thriving family life they enjoyed with their children and with each other.
Disagreements will be part of any marriage. But harsh, angry arguments do not need to be the norm, especially in front of your children. So next time you feel an ugly argument looming, remember the words of Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” It is almost always possible to stave off a heated discussion simply by responding with gentleness instead of harshness. Granted, this is not easy, and it requires asking God for the grace to yield to His Spirit rather than our own turbulent emotions. But it is a crucial discipline to develop, not only for the health of our marriage, but for the sake of our children as well.
Take Time to Show Affection
As Harper reminded me, kids love to see their parents show little signs of affection to each other throughout the day. Simply taking the time to give a quick hug or kiss to your spouse when the children are around can help them remember how much you love each other and boost their sense of stability at home. When Eric gets home from work, he is often waylaid by six rambunctious children wanting to wrestle and spend time with him. But more often than not, he takes a moment to find me first and give me a quick affectionate greeting. This shows the children that our marriage is the highest priority — and it breeds a deep level of security within them, even if they have to wait a few extra minutes to have Daddy’s undivided attention.
In addition, build each other up verbally in front of your kids. Little comments of appreciation such as, “Didn’t Daddy do a great job on the lawn? He always takes great care of our house!” or, “Don’t you think Mommy looks pretty today?” will cause children to beam with delight. Kids love to hear genuine words of affection and appreciation spoken between their parents. Not only does it give them the security of knowing their parents love and respect each other, but it also gives them a tangible model for loving and honoring a spouse as God intended. So don’t allow the hustle and bustle of the day to rob those precious opportunities to show affection toward your spouse. Taking the time to show appreciation to your husband will reap lifelong rewards, both in your marriage and in your children’s hearts and minds.
Spend Time Together as a Couple
Eric and I have had a weekly date night ever since our first child, Hudson, was a newborn. When our kids see us taking time to cultivate our own relationship, they know that our marriage is strong. As much as our culture tries to convince us to put kids first and marriage as a distant second, God’s pattern is different: marriage comes first in the family priority list. Putting our marriage first doesn’t cause our children to feel frustrated and insecure; rather, it gives them incredible peace and stability. Even if it is not possible for you and your spouse to steal way on a date night each week, be purposeful about spending time alone together on a regular basis, and let your children see that your marriage is high on your priority list—rather than getting lost in the shuffle of daily life. Maybe it’s an early morning walk together, or enjoying a cup of coffee or tea before the children come to the table in the morning. Maybe it’s a time to talk quietly together on the couch each night after a busy day.
There are many simple things that you can do to cultivate your relationship and strengthen your unity as a couple. Remember that when you invest time and energy into your marriage relationship, you are strengthening your children as well!